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Authors: M. C. Grant

Tags: #Suspense, #mystery, #Fiction, #medium-boiled, #M.C. Grant, #Grant, #San Francisco, #Dixie Flynn, #Bay Area

Devil With a Gun (7 page)

BOOK: Devil With a Gun
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Eleven

I slip into clean
underwear, fresh jeans, and a retro-inspired T-shirt from a Clash concert I was too young to attend but that makes me feel like I was there in spirit—and it looks cool.

When I emerge from the bedroom, Kristy uses a glass of white wine from a bottle she found in my fridge to lure me over to the couch, where Prince is already luxuriating in a personalized tummy rub and ear scratch.

“So tell me more about the mugging,” she says. “Why were you targeted?”

I start at the beginning with the classified ad and end with the Good Samaritan translating what the Russian was after.

“That's odd,” says Kristy. “What would it matter who sent you? This gangsta boss already admits he knew the missing man's family, even though he's lying to you about not knowing the guy. And after all this time, nobody but the family is really gonna care what happened to him, right?”

I nod. “True.”

“It's also strange that he called the hairdresser a whore, don't you think? That sounds kinda angry, like personal angry.”

I think about it. “Bailey admits her past was rough. She didn't go into details, but with her dad out of the picture—”

“And this creep asking to buy her,” Kristy injects.

Goosebumps rise on my arms. “Exactly.”

“Have you told the hairdresser what happened?” Kristy asks.

“I wanted to wait until I had something she doesn't already know.”

“But you should warn her.”

“Warn her?”

“Yeah.” Kristy leans forward, her eyes wide. “If this Russian mob boss is so paranoid about you snooping around that he sent a thug to threaten you, what's he gonna do to the people he thinks actually
did
send you?”

The blood drains from my face. “Oh shit!”

“Come on,” Kristy says, getting to her feet. “My car's downstairs. Grab your coat.”

Scissors & Sizzle is still open for business when Kristy pulls to the curb and I hop out. Kristy doesn't want anyone to see her in less than pristine condition, so she tells me she'll keep the car running, as though I'm about to rob a bank and will need a quick getaway.

When I burst through the salon doors, the receptionist with the bruised eyes takes one look at me and says, “Bailey couldn't help, huh? Shame.”

“Is she here?” I ask urgently.

“Bails?”

“Yes!” I snap.

“Whoa. Chill.” She holds up both hands in a calming motion. “We can't work miracles, you know? Sometimes you just have to let it grow out.”

I step forward and flash my angry face. “I'm not here about the goddamn hair. Is Bailey Brown here?”

The receptionist gulps. “She's in back.”

“Can you get her for me?”

“Yeah, yeah, sure.”

She lifts the phone and talks into the mouthpiece. When she hangs up, she looks sheepish. “Bails isn't there, but she's probably just in the alley having a sneaky smoke.”

I point to the rear of the shop. “You have a back door?”

“Yeah, but we don't allow customers—”

I don't bother to let her finish before I'm running through the salon. When I burst through the rear exit, I'm not sure what I'll find, but I prepare for the worst.

Fortunately, my imagination is more active than reality.

“Hey, Dixie,” Bailey says as she exhales a lungful of smoke from a sweetly scented cigarette. “Cloves and a little sprinkling of pot. Helps the anxiety, you know?”

“Has anyone been to see you?” I ask.

Her eyes narrow. “Just customers, why?”

I tell her about the Russian with the rotten nails.

She takes another drag on the cigarette and holds it in her lungs for a long time. I watch the tremor in her fingers and think she should've gone with less cloves and more weed.

“I didn't think he knew I was back,” she says.

“Back?”

“I've been living in Boston for the last ten years, but I missed home, you know?” She takes a deep breath. “I shouldn't have come back.”

“What about your sister?” I ask. “Did she leave, too?”

Bailey's eyes ripple with moisture as she shakes her head. “Roxanne stayed here. I tried to take her with me, but … ” Her voice fades.

I think back to what Lebed said. He only actually mentioned one daughter; one whore.

“Do you know where I can find her?” I ask.

A sharp pain creases Bailey's face as she lifts the medicinal cigarette to her lips and takes a deep pull. Her hands are shaking so badly that ash drops from its tip until it's little more than a yellowed nib.

“I asked around when I first got back, heard she's working a low-rent hotel on the eastside. But I haven't had the courage to find her. She was such a pretty girl, but that life quickly goes from five-star to the sewer. I didn't know if my heart could take it.”

“Do you know which hotel?”

“The Sandford. You know it?”

I do. By reputation. A short cab ride from the transport docks and popular with the international cadre of merchant seamen whose English vocabulary consists of two words:
pussy
and
whiskey
. It's the kind of place where if the doorman doesn't find any weapons on you, he hands you one.

“I'll find her,” I say. “But you be careful. Don't go anywhere alone.”

Bailey shrugs and wraps her arms across her bosom in a protective hug. “Nothing much left that Lebed can do to me.”

I reach out and take hold of her trembling hand. “Then do it for me. I don't want it on my conscience if you get hurt.”

Bailey squeezes my hand and smiles. “That's actually one of the nicest things I've heard in awhile.”

I squeeze back. “I'll take that as a promise.”

Bailey smiles and lifts the cigarette stub to her lips again, but there's nothing left to puff. “This needed more pot,” she says.

I leave her with a wink as I turn around and head back through the salon to Kristy's waiting car.

Twelve

I make Kristy pull
over at the first pay phone we see, and I hop out to make a quick call.

Pinch doesn't answer, but I leave a brief message on his machine just to let him know where I'm heading in case he's in the neighborhood and feels like joining me for a drink in the unfriendliest hotel bar in town.

Admittedly, it won't be the most appealing offer he's ever received, but I knew every patron's comprehension of English would be instantly forgotten if I invited Frank along instead. Frank is so much a cop that even a blind drunk can tell when he walks in a room.

As we near the hotel, Kristy studies both sides of the street and says, “Lock your door.”

“We're in a convertible,” I say. “A locked door isn't going to help. If someone—”

“Stop talking, Dix!” Kristy yells.

“Sorry,” I say sheepishly.

Curious eyes follow us as we travel the last two blocks; shadowy faces appearing from doorways and behind the windows of last-stop bachelor apartments with a bird's-eye view of the liquor stores, porno vendors, pawnshops, and moneylenders. Kristy's electric-yellow VW Bug is a spaceship here—an alien visitor from a different world.

Every other vehicle is some shade of gray, as if this part of the city can only be seen in black and white. Even the people on the street are dressed in monochrome: black hoodies, black jeans, black boots. It reminds me of a Frank Miller comic book where the only color comes as the result of violence—an angry slash of red.

“You should head home after you drop me off,” I say.

Kristy glances over, her eyes wide with panic.

“I'll be fine,” I add. “I can blend in; you can't.”

“If you're sure,” Kristy says bravely.

I nod. “The Bug belongs in a happier place.”

Kristy smiles and pats the dashboard as if stroking a pet. “She does prefer the sunny side of the street.”

Kristy pulls over outside the Sandford Hotel. “Let me know when you're safely back home,” she says.

I put on a brave smile and open the door.

Even though I know it's likely a waste of time, I start at the reception desk. The lobby smells of cigarettes, beer, and something fouler that was mopped up using a lot of industrial bleach; but whoever did the job missed a few spots, rubbed it into the carpet with the toe of their shoe, and hoped nobody noticed.

The disturbing part is that the hotel's usual clientele likely wouldn't.

The clerk behind the reception desk could be anywhere from thirty to sixty; his eyes say the latter, but the lack of wrinkles on his sallow face beg to differ. He's tall and scarecrow lean with an unflattering haircut that reminds me of a monk, as though someone stuck a bowl on his head and simply cut off whatever dangled below the rim.

He also holds his head at a 45-degree angle with his left ear practically stitched to his shoulder, which makes meeting his gaze unnervingly difficult.

“I'm looking for a girl,” I say. “Twenty years old, possibly blond, called Roxanne.”

“She black, chink, or vanilla?” the man asks. A nametag on his shirt reads
Hello, my name is Warrick
just in case some customer gives a damn, which I'm guessing most don't.

“Caucasian,” I say.

“Cock Asian, that's a new one. You mean chink she-male?”

He grins. I don't.

“She's white,” I say.

“And who's asking?”

“I am.”

Warrick grins again, the upper half of his mouth opening wider than the lower half to form a toothy comma.

“And who are you?”

“A friend of her sister.”

“I like sisters,” he says.

“Yeah, who doesn't?” I snap impatiently. “Do you know her or not?”

Warrick moves his head from side to side, but because of the angle of his neck, I can't tell if he means it be a shake or a nod.

“What room is she in?” I press.

Warrick shrugs. “I take the money and hand out keys. I don't peep.”

Which tells me straight away that he's a peeper.

“So you have cameras in the rooms.”

He looks horrified. “No!”

Which means yes. I lift my chin to indicate the door behind him. “You keep the monitors and video equipment in there?”

“NO!”

“Good to know. Thanks.”

He begins to panic. “I didn't tell you anything.”

I smile cruelly. “That's exactly what I'll tell Red Swan when I'm talking to him.”

If it is possible for his face to become any paler, it does. “I-I-I didn't say anything,” he insists.

“Not a thing,” I agree, but my eyes say different and he's reading my eyes.

He looks away and begins chewing his fingernails. It's not a new habit. “What do you want?”

“Just one girl. You'll hardly even miss her. Is she here?”

His eyes flash around the lobby as if he's expecting an army of ninjas to drop from the ceiling or spring from hidden cavities in the walls. I'm guessing he's been watching too much
Scooby-Doo
.

“Which room?” I ask.

He glances down at a small computer monitor on his desk, which tells me he's not as thick as he's letting on.

“She's in the bar.”

“Thanks.”

I turn to head for the connecting doors to the bar but stop and turn back before I push through.

“Is she still blond?” I ask, since the only photograph I've seen of her was when she was around five years old.

“Pink,” he says. “This week she's pink.”

The bar is noisy and filled with enough testosterone to make me worry I'm about to sprout hair on my chest and start scratching my balls.

A few heads turn my way, and I suddenly feel thankful that my breasts are discreet and I decided to wear a bra today. I just hope the manly pheromone stench doesn't make my nipples pop out to say hello, because I have a feeling that would be like taking a match to a tinderbox doused in white gas.

I try to remember how it is that Sam can enter a room and make everyone instantly aware that she's a butch lesbian who won't put up with any homophobic shit. But when you love someone as a sister, it's difficult to see her through anyone else's eyes.

Instead I channel Clint Eastwood with hard cowboy eyes and an unfriendly scowl. Pity I don't have a cigarillo and a poncho to complete the look.

I make my way to the bar, since standing still is attracting too much attention. I ignore the first hand that lands on my ass; the second is more difficult, as it's eager to explore and I'm forced to quicken my pace; the third makes a pinching move, catching a piece of flesh between finger and thumb.

I spin, grab the offending finger, and force it in a direction it was never designed to go. The jarring snap of bone is like a gunshot that silences the room. The finger's owner—
a gristly longshoreman with bad teeth and overgrown mutton-chop sideburns—screams in agony before jabbering in a long string of Polish that, even to untrained ears, has the meaty weight of profanity.

None of the men at his table move an inch as Mutton Chop fixes murderous red-rimmed eyes on me and I wait to see if he wants to take it further.

Unfortunately, he does, and it's too late for me to explain that I hadn't actually planned to break the offending digit; I was aiming for a dislocation or serious sprain, but I'm still learning. However, as Pinch has been teaching me: If you have to put a man down, make sure he doesn't want to get up again.

I hear Mutton Chop's chair scrape backward as he prepares to rise, but I don't want him to get to his feet and make this a fairer fight. As his knees begin to straighten and he's in that awkward, top-heavy and unbalanced state between sitting and standing, I blindside him with a straight-armed strike containing all the strength of my shoulders and back.

This time I connect with the back of his skull, the heel of my hand sliding into the nerve cluster where bone meets neck; my fingers dig through greasy hair to latch onto his scalp. In the same instant, I yank his supporting arm to one side and lift off my feet to focus all my weight behind the head slam.

Mutton Chop doesn't even have time to scream again before his remaining support buckles and his face crunches into the table with enough force to crack the wood. His companions push away from the table in the nick of time to save their beers and avoid most of the blood spray.

I hold my breath, tense and more than a little afraid, but none of them rise in defense of their friend as he turns his head to the side to blow blood bubbles through his nose.

No other errant hand makes an attempt to molest me when I continue to the bar and order a draft beer and shot of Jack Daniel's.

I keep my back to the crowd as I down the Tennessee whiskey in one gulp so that only the bartender witnesses the tremor in my hand. He refills the shot glass without being asked.

“On the house,” he says. “Gerek's an asshole.”

“Think his friends will let me walk out of here?” I ask.

The bartender shrugs. “I wouldn't go to the john alone if I were you. Too much privacy is never healthy.”

I down the second shot and take a sip of beer. I have to stop myself from spitting the beer back out; it's cheap and wet, but that's the only good thing I can say about it.

I leave the glass on the bar and surreptitiously scan the room. I spot a young girl with pink hair standing near the jukebox. A slobbering ox has his hand up her short skirt while an imposing bouncer stands nearby awaiting word that an exchange of money is needed to go any further.

Abandoning the liquid insult to craft brewers everywhere, I
move around the edge of the room until I'm beside the jukebox with the drunken ox between the helium-filled bouncer and myself.

“Roxanne?” I ask.

The pink-haired girl looks over at me, and I instantly see the family resemblance to Bailey. Despite being five years younger, her face wears similar scars. If I had to say who looked older, Roxanne would win hands down.

“Can we go somewhere?” I ask.

The ox's hand is still moving under her skirt, but his eyes are so glazed he doesn't appear to be in the same room.

“Don't usually get that request from girls,” she says. “Not in this dump at least. Used to when I worked the classy joints.”

“We need to talk.”

“Oh shit! What are you, a social worker? Cop?”

“Neither. I'm a friend of your sister's.”

“Bullshit. She's gone.”

“She's back in San Francisco. She wants to see you.”

Roxanne snorts. “Get lost. I don't have a sister anymore.”

“She misses you,” I press.

“Now I know you're lying. Bailey can't miss anyone; you need to have a heart first.”

“Maybe she's changed?”

“Yeah, and maybe ducks will shit rainbows.”

I smile at the crude expression. “That would be something to see, wouldn't it?”

Roxanne surprises me by smiling back, briefly exposing the young girl within.

“You're an odd one, but I like how you handled Gerek back there. None of these Polish freaks can get their rocks off unless it's anal and you're in pain. What the fuck is up with that?”

I shrug and try to make sure I'm not cringing.

“Can we get out of here?” I ask.

“I'm working.”

“I think you might be in danger.”

“What? Why?”

I tell her about my meeting with the Red Swan and her face glows livid.

“You stupid bitch! Why would you go looking into that?”

“Don't you want to know what happened to your father?”

“No! I don't even remember him, and that's the way I like it.”

I notice that people are starting to pay attention to us, and that's never a good thing.

“Look at your life, Roxanne. Is this really what you want?”

“Fuck you!” she explodes. “You don't know me or what I want.”

“I can help,” I push. “I know some great people who can get you back on your feet.”

“Yeah, yeah, and off my back. I've heard the sermons before, sister.”

“Damnit. Listen to me: you're in danger here.”

“No.” Roxanne shakes her head. “The only one in danger here is you.”

I look beyond the ox and see the bouncer moving in toward us. I glance over my shoulder and see a second bouncer coming from behind the bar.

“Please, Roxanne.” I hold out my hand. “Just come with me. Give me a day. We'll see your sister.”

Roxanne's eyes are hard and dry as millstone. “You really think I have that choice?” she says. “Don't be so fucking naive.”

The first bouncer pushes past the ox, telling him to back off or take it upstairs, and advances on me.

All I have is my boot knife, Lily, but I know it won't do me any good. A smart fighter knows when a brawl is lost before it's even begun.

I raise my hands to show they're empty and that I'm willing to go peacefully.

BOOK: Devil With a Gun
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